The family of a Howard County girl who killed herself after months of harassment on social media sites asked Maryland lawmakers Thursday to pass a bill that would allow a jail term for a variety of acts known as "cyber-bullying."

Chris McComas, whose daughter Grace, 15, took her own life on Easter Sunday 2012, told the House Judiciary Committee that the Glenelg High School student had for months been the target of malicious postings on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The mother said the family turned to police and the courts but was told nothing could be done.


"It's the Wild West out there, and our children need protection," McComas said. "If it can happen to her, it could happen to anyone. And therein lies the horror, because this should happen to no one."

The legislation, sponsored by Del. Jon S. Cardin, is a response to the use of social media to take schoolyard bullying to a new level where it follows victims home and — in an age of smartphones — everywhere they go. Cardin told the committee that over half of today's students have been victims of cyber-bullying, which has been identified as a factor in many adolescent suicides.

McComas was joined by Grace's father, David McComas, and daughters Cara and Megan in testifying in favor the bill, which would make it a misdemeanor with a jail term of up to a year and a $500 fine to threaten or make false and defamatory statements about a minor in an electronic communication. The bill would also make it illegal to use such media to expose a minor to "public scorn, hatred, contempt or ridicule" or to disclose private information about a person under 18.

Maryland ACLU policy director Sara Love said the bill violates both the First and Fifth Amendments.

"It's not narrowly tailored, and there are less restrictive alternatives available," Love said, using the language frequently employed by judges when they strike down laws. Her misgivings were echoed by members of the committee, including Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican who suggested that the problem might be better addressed under civil law.

The hearing illustrated the quandary lawmakers face. None denied that the behavior the bill is seeking to address is reprehensible. The challenge is to find a way to address it that doesn't violate the Constitution or criminalize acts that would be better left to civil law.

Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the original bill has been rewritten to address constitutional concerns. He said he enlisted Michael L. Meyerson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, to draft a version that would pass muster in court.

Meyerson said the First Amendment allows people to be mean but not to harm, threaten or intimidate children. He said he rewrote the bill to carefully follow U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Harassment can be made a criminal offense, he said, when it amounts to "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

Cardin said his goal is not to criminalize behavior — though the bill does that — but to raise awareness of a growing problem.

"Words do matter. It's important to protect our youngsters," he said.

The bill's proponents picked up support from a well-known figure, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who has made fighting bullying a personal cause.

Rice did not attend the hearing but was represented by Baltimore sportscaster Keith Mills, who read from a letter the football star wrote to committee members.

"Cyber-bullying has gotten out of hand. We need to act and need to act now," Rice wrote. "This law may have saved the life of Grace McComas."